Five months into the Biden administration, changes are beginning to emerge in how the federal government’s occupational safety agency is enforcing its Covid-19 worker-protection mandates.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued more than three times as many violations of the general duty clause, a provision of federal law, than it did during the Trump administration, according to a Bloomberg Law review of OSHA enforcement data. OSHA also has increased the number of inspections of workplaces where Covid-19 could be a hazard, even if an employer or workers haven’t reported complaints to the agency.
The trends mean that employers with no recent Covid-19 worker hospitalizations or deaths could still be inspected if they’re in an industry where infections pose a problem. At the same time, rising vaccine rates also could allow the agency to focus more on other types of workplace hazards.
Under the Biden administration, OSHA has issued 11 general duty clause citations, compared with three during the Trump administration, which was roundly criticized by union leaders and worker-safety advocates for its business-friendly approach to virus enforcement.
The general duty clause, part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, requires employers to provide a workplace free of known deadly hazards that can be feasibly mitigated. The Trump administration pointed to the clause to justify not issuing an emergency rule specific to Covid-19.
The three employers the Trump administration cited were all meatpacking plants, and in each case it proposed a $13,494 fine, the maximum penalty for an alleged serious violation.
While use of the general duty clause provides the clearest difference between the Trump and Biden administrations’ approaches to workplace safety enforcement during the pandemic, some aspects didn’t change. Under Trump, the average proposed fine from a Covid-19 inspection was $13,046, while under Biden it has averaged $13,232.
Rule Brings Changes
OSHA conducted 2,370 Covid-19 inspections between the start of the pandemic and June 13, agency data showed. Of those, 1,531 began while Trump was president and 839 were under Biden.
As of June 3, the latest date for which citation records were available, OSHA had issued citations following 485 virus-related inspections. Of those, 279 were brought during the Trump presidency, and 206 since the Biden administration’s first full day, Jan 21.
Most of the citations issued under Biden stemmed from inspections that began during the Trump administration. Following the start of an inspection, OSHA has up to six months to issue a citation.
John Ho, co-chair of Nixon Peabody’s workplace safety practice, in New York…